Part 5—Instant disinformation: Do we the people really need the services of gatekeepers?
Do we need philosopher kings to sift the claims we’re permitted to hear? You can bet your sweet bullroar we do!
That said, our gatekeepers are long gone. There are no figures like Cronkite and Brinkley to keep us from hearing The Dumb, The Inane and The Wrong.
In fact, we’re constantly hearing The Dumb and The Wrong! To see where this horrible process leads, consider one of the comments to Jamelle Bouie’s latest piece at Slate.
Bouie is a youngish writer (University of Virginia, 2009) who has tended to argue that Officer Wilson should be charged with a crime for shooting Michael Brown.
That might be right or that might be wrong. We aren’t trying to settle that question here.
In his brand-new piece at Slate, Bouie argues that “a new analysis of the official autopsy report—released by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch” fails to settle the basic questions which lie at the heart of this case.
As far as we know, that’s an accurate assessment. That said, we were struck by the many comments to Bouie’s piece which were, let us say, racially florid.
We were also struck by the way we the people have perhaps been misled by recent reporting about that autopsy report.
We were especially struck by a comment which appeared under the name Ernst Blofeld. Presumably, that’s a pseudonym, drawn from the old James Bond character.
Bouie’s commenter was anonymous, like the “sources” who have been spreading claims about the shooting of Brown. Working under his James Bond name, the commenter described some of the evidence which, he says, has emerged this week:
COMMENTER (10/23/14): ...Wilson shot Brown in the police car during a struggle over the gun, and the force was justified. Whether Wilson's eye socket was fractured is yet to be determined, but there was a fight in the car and Wilson was punched in the face. And "seven or eight" black witnesses, and who knows how many white witnesses, say Brown was charging Wilson.According to this commenter, “seven or eight” black witnesses have said that Brown was charging at Officer Wilson when he was fatally shot.
If true, that would be highly significant.
For the record, that statement doesn’t track back to the report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It tracks to a profoundly incompetent front-page report in yesterday’s Washington Post.
(Bouie didn’t discuss the report in the Post, with which Slate has long been closely connected. We’re tempted to say that it just isn’t done, not even by fiery, supposedly idealistic young progressive careerists.)
Whatever! Fairly clearly, the commenter’s claim derives from the lengthy report in yesterday’s Washington Post (see text below). Here’s the problem:
The Post report doesn’t say that seven or eight black witnesses have said that Brown was charging at Wilson. In fact, the commenter greatly embellished a statement from yesterday’s Post.
That said, the actual statement in the Post was almost defiantly murky. Anyone with an ounce of sense would have known that the murky statement would quickly be embellished.
Below, you see the passage in question. Incomparably, we posted it yesterday:
KINDY AND HORWITZ (10/23/14): Wilson's attorney, James P. Towey Jr., did not return a call seeking comment.The Washington Post did not report that seven or eight black witnesses say Brown was charging at Wilson. The Post reported something quite different—something so absurdly vague as to be virtually meaningless:
Seven or eight African American eyewitnesses have provided testimony consistent with Wilson's account, but none have spoken publicly out of fear for their safety, The Post's sources said.
The St. Louis County Police Department and the FBI are investigating the shooting, and evidence gathered by both agencies is being presented to the grand jury, which started meeting in mid-August and is expected to conclude its work early next month.
According to “The Post’s sources” (whoever they are), “Seven or eight African American eyewitnesses have provided testimony consistent with Wilson's account.”
For what it’s worth, we have no doubt that the statement is technically accurate. In large part, that’s because the statement is so vague that it’s virtually meaningless.
For precisely that reason, that statement begged to be embellished. Anybody could have foreseen where that piddle would lead.
Almost surely, other versions of that embellishment have proceeded through wide parts of our national discourse. By now, many people have heard that seven or eight black witnesses have said that Brown was charging at Wilson.
Plainly, that’s an embellishment of what the Post reported. But it was inevitable, given the roaring incompetence, of the Post’s report.
Go ahead—scan that statement again:
“Seven or eight African American eyewitnesses have provided testimony consistent with Wilson's account.”
Can you see what’s missing there?
That doesn’t tell us which part of Wilson’s account has been supported by those black eyewitnesses.
In fact, it doesn’t even say that their testimony supported Wilson’s account. It merely says that their testimony is consistent with Wilson’s account. That could mean that the witnesses said the shooting occurred near noon!
That statement was so vague that it said nothing at all. It didn’t belong in that front-page report. A gatekeeper should have killed it.
Years ago, that might have happened! We can imagine an editor—let’s call him Ben Bradlee—striking that pointless statement (and a great deal more) from that front-page report.
That didn’t happen this week. Indeed, most of yesterday’s front-page report was so absurdly vague that it told us nothing at all.
That said, its vague pronouncements conveyed the unmistakable sense that Wilson’s account of the shooting has been strongly supported. That front-page report reads like propaganda. It doesn’t read like journalism at all.
As we noted yesterday, that front-page was written by Sari Horwitz, who has won three Pulitzer prizes. Amazing but true:
Within our floundering public discourse, this is the way our elite “press corps” currently does its job.
Can we talk? Horwitz prepared an absurdly incompetent report. An incompetent editor put it in print. One of its absurdly vague claims is now being embellished by us the people.
A gatekeeper should have killed that statement. That pointless claim should have been kept far away from that commenter’s eyes.
That said, our gatekeepers are long gone. We the people are now in charge—and our judgments are often bad wrong.